Wednesday, July 01, 2009

One week in Cloud Twitterland

So I figured I needed to know what this Twitter thing was all about. Yeah, I had a Twitter account (@murliman)already, got one a long while ago, needed to feel I was cool and all; but after sending out a tweet or two, I couldn't really figure out what this was all about and abandoned further efforts. Here's my first ever tweet:

exploring twitter
from web
Note the date on that. My second tweet is identical, sent at the same time. Must have goofed up, I guess. My third tweet came more than 7 months later:
Wondering why the Twitter logo(?) is what it is (o_O) Are those the eyes of a kinda stoned birdie?
from web
And that was it.

So my Twitterscape lay fallow, unhonored, unsung, unploughed. Turned out that I was something like the first guy with a telephone or email: nice, but it all seemed pretty pointless. Things turned around in early June this year. I had started blogging again - like mad - the blame for which falls entirely at the feet of my former student, Ashish Sharma (Twitter handle: @ashinertia). I figured I needed to get word out about my blogposts and reasoned I could use Twitter for that; after all there were probably a billion Twitterers out there. At the time, I had a small (single-digit) number of 'followers' and at least they could come to know about my blogs thus. My tweeting resumed with this tweet:
from web
I still didn't know what Twitter was all about, but figured I'd just jump in and find out. In this quest I was aided by @marcynewman who tweeted me, saying, 'Hey, you're tweeting!' or something like that. To which I responded:
@marcynewman :-) just experimenting; was getting frustrated that I didn't know how to use this dang thing. You UberTechi, you!
from web in reply to marcynewman
Now @marcynewman is a major techie even though she claims I'm the one who made her technical and all. She is the quintessential technobabe which term I first heard used by my former colleague Robert "I'm not Bob" Minch when referring to someone we mutually knew. @marcynewman's body is covered with technology; she could walk onto a sci-fi movie set without any additional props or gear and fit right in.

For the next one week I posted 17 tweets ('updates' in Twitterish), 7 of which were a conversation between myself and @marcynewman (which could have happened through chat or direct messaging; still trying to figure out Twitter) and the remaining contained links to blogposts I had created; yes, I was blogging like crazy, compared to the previous years.

Then it all died out as abruptly as it had started.

I'm told this is a standard pattern among Twitterers; the Twitterscape is littered with millions of abandoned @names. But then another thing happened; my son was done with his examinations, and I was free. After that my tweeting began in right earnest all over again, about ten days ago, on June 22, since when I've sent out over 120 tweets; also, quite happily, I am now a certified twunkie (tip o' the hat to @durrink for that term) -- a Twitter Junkie. I think I am beginning to get it and I'll try to present Twitter according to @murliman (tat@m?).

Understanding Twitter

First of all, I think I understand the reason why so many abandon Twitter: one's level of participation in Twitterland is not a continuum of values -- either you're pretty close to being a junkie or you don't go there at all. It's pretty pointless to go there occasionally unless:
  • you're a celebrity and your fans out there are dying for a few morsels now and then
  • you like to be stimulated by random, serendipitous posts from friends or strangers
So, the occasional visitor is either mostly a Tweet generator or a Tweet consumer. Tweeting occasionally by anyone else is of interest primarily to close friends and family, and that too only if said close friends and family are Twunkies.
One might visit Twitter constantly for a limited period of time if
  • there's some major event happening, e.g., the Iran Revolution, the Mumbai Terror Attack, a conference or a ball game, and you'd like to know what's going on (or if you're in the thick of things, even send out tweets yourself)
Those who sign up for a Twitter account to find out what it's all about need to stick it out long enough to become Twunkies (if they are susceptible to the Twug - Twitter-Drug) else they mostly likely will abandon efforts. My first couple of forays were very superficial; it's only the third time around when I decided to stay the course until something magical happened. And in fact, it did. Like most addictions, I'm not entirely sure why I Tweet, but it does provide some sort of a high; and if I stay away long enough, I began experiencing some sort of Twithdrawal? - and need to go get my fix again. One article sums it up pretty well:
The Twitter Cycle: Curiosity, abandonment, addiction. Global visitors hit 37 million.
In just two years, Twitter has come a long way. And in the coming years, the social media landscape will transform wildly because of a seed called Twitter.

In some ways, Twitter was a clean sheet restart of electronic communications. Email, blogs, and Facebook had been around for a while, but they had become much too baroque, too overladen with features. They had become bulky, unwieldy, complex. Twitter was a way to return to the drawing board and start from scratch all over again.

The SMS framework in mobile phone communications seemed like a good starting point. There was email, which required computers (or smart phones) and there was SMS (for mobile phone communications). Twitter's founders thought -- how about seamlessly combining mobile phone and computer communications by employing the lowest common denominator -- SMS -- as the messaging structure?

Think about it: It takes two to SMS -- or Tweet: a sender and a receiver. Let's assume these are persons known to each other. Perhaps the tweets are perishable, standalone, and have no further value. There is no need to save or organize the tweets. On the other hand, perhaps the tweeting constitutes a conversation, and there is value in preserving them, much like email messages. If so, the only structuring mechanism needed to manage the tweets is to organize and list them in chronological order. It might also be useful to list each Twitterer's messages separately (and in chronological order). So there are three lists: the complete list of Tweets in chronological order and two lists listing only each Twitterer's Tweets (the latter two, of course, do not need to be separately maintained by can be generated dynamically from the first on demand).

Now, friends and family come to learn about this new messaging medium, and want in on the action. The total population of Twitterers grows, say to about 5. This set of five persons are all know each other, and would like to keep up with each others' tweets. It's personal, or work related, but it keeps them connected. The same structuring mechanism (chronological, and by Twitterer) suffices.

Then others begin to join the Twitterscape -- friends, and later, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends ... ad nauseum. Pretty soon, the number of Twitterers is in the hundreds - or thousands. Everybody no longer knows everybody else. Most have interest in the tweets of only a subset of the Twitternation. And so the idea of a Follower is introduced: each Twitterer chooses to follow some subset of Twitterers in the Twitternation. This select subset (unique to each Twitterer) is made up individuals known as Friends (not to be confused with Real friends in the Real world).

So where there once was a single, completely-connected cluster of Tweeters, there now are tens of millions of clusters, which in turn are connected to other clusters. Each cluster represents one individual Twitter and his/her Followers. That Twitterer, in turn, is a Follower (and hence a member) of many other clusters.

What, if any, change is needed to structure and organize Tweets (at least as viewed by a Twitterer)? No longer is it feasible or useful for any Twitterer to view the entire tsunami of Tweets generated by the entire Twitternation of tens (or hundreds) of millions: you view the Tweets of only those you follow. Following, then, is the structuring mechanism for bringing down an individual's Tweetupdates down to a manageable number (besides reducing the bandwidth consumption on the Internet by several orders of magnitude).
To manage communications with some level of sanity, each Twitterer chooses to Follow only a relatively small number of Twitterers (although some Twitters seemingly follow tens of thousands of other Twitterers -- to what end, I don't know; it's unlikely that they actually follow them all, or that all of those tens or thousands tweet regularly).

What other structuring mechanisms are available besides View by Individual Twitterer's Tweetstream and View by a Friend's Tweetstream?
Enter: Hashtags. Hashtags are an innovation from Twitterers themselves rather than by Twitter's developers. Hashtags are of the form
'searchterm' is the string one is searching for. Twitterers developed this as a means of tagging and searching for all Tweets relating to a particular issue, e.g.,
#iranelection or #pdf09
where pdf09 is the name of a recent conference. All tweets that include a specific hashtag are listed in reverse chronological order. While it is possible to search for any character string in Twitter, using a '#' prefix implies that the Twitterer deliberately intended for it to show up in a search. Typically, there is a consensus to employ a specific character string since the Twitter system does not create separate forums to deal with specific issues or events.

That last sentence is important: other social media deliberately create walls and fences for discussions to proceed and socialization to occur in finite forums with defined memberships. Twitter, on the other hand, erects no walls and intentionally permits serendipitous discoveries. Being a Twitterer is akin to wandering into a vast mall or commons, bumping into friends and strangers, chatting with some, overhearing conversations, making general pronouncements that some might hear and most might ignore. It's a like a never-ending cocktail party on a monstrous scale. There are some who successfully bring their real-world celebrity status or recognition into the Twitter. And there are others whose real-world status may be markedly different (better or worse) from the one enjoyed (or deplored) by their TwitterPersona. Take the case of this musician who earned $19,000 in just ten hours from her Tweets. Certainly better than anything she had managed in real life until then.

I, for one, am enjoying the ride so far. It tickles me to read Tweets coming in from persons of the stature of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nandan Nilekani, Al Gore and for gosh's sake, Jack Welch! I felt Twitter had arrived the moment I found a post from Welch.

The question now is, what other ways might there be to structure the basic Twitter stream? The need for alternative structuring mechanisms is already evident in the large number of Twitter applications that have emerged during the very short life of Twitter, and more are in the pipeline. Twitter is like a vast, constantly changing terrain and Twitters soon learn that they need for making sense of this relentlessly transmogrifying space; they need maps of some kind, and the various Twitter apps help in both making sense of the Twitterscape as well as negotiate it successfully. Within a week after diving into the TwitterCloud, I felt disoriented enough to feel the need to scan the web and download tools for managing the process. I am now using two fine, highly-recommended Twitter desktop apps Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop, both constructed using Adobe Air, the Rich Internet App (RIA) development platform.

I can see how the TwitterStream can be the basic building block of just about any communication-based application, mostly involving humans, but not necessarily so: I can conceive of embedded digital devices 'friending' and 'following' other Twittering digital devices, or even humans exchanging Tweets with machines (the machines, of course, parse the Tweets and take appropriate actions). Hence Twitter can become a universal communication infrastructure at a level just above machine communication but low down on the hierarchy of human communication.

It helps Twitter's case that it is addictive: one blogger has found the need to publicly lament that his Twittering has left him little time to blog and that he was going to have tear himself away from Twittering for the purpose.
Like the world depicted in the movie, The Matrix, Twitter is an alternative reality, kaleidoscopic, rich, stimulating, heady, fast-paced, diverse, ever-changing, an infinite series of windows both into the real world as well as the world of the Web, which is itself, in turn, a series of windows ... It's not hard to understand how one can get sucked into this maelstrom with a much greater force than that exerted by the Web itself. There is no starting point nor is there a time and place to get off; one has to force oneself off and return to the physical world. Twitter is a world with strong connections to the physical world, but it is its own space, has its own complexion and character and is feels no less real than the one in which we eat and drink and sleep. Twitter has some of the characteristics of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), but unlike the latter, it has little or no barriers to entry.

One broader observation: I have been associated with what is now called social media but used to be known by various names such as: groupware, computer support for cooperative work, group support systems, etc., for over two decades, and have contributed to formal academic research in the field. In all these years, however, there is not one social application developed by researchers in universities and corporate labs that has found widespread acceptance among the general public. The most wildly popular social applications such as Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger were developed by young, imaginative, energetic persons with no pretensions to doing research: they built tools that they found useful to themselves, and happily, tens of millions of others found them useful too. None of these social apps came out fully developed or with any coherent theoretical model, as academicians insist on creating before they build and explore tools and applications. The apps came out completely from the unique, idisyncratic experiences of a few individuals; surprisingly, they also matched the needs of the many. Over time, with feedback from users, the tools rapidly evolved. In all these instances, theory appears to follow, rather than lead phenomena. There must be a whole lot of researchers trying to figure out why Facebook and Twitter have become the monsters they are now, but none of them could have anticipated them based on any available theoretical framework. Clearly, the current social and social psychological theories are flawed, or limited and need to be reviewed and revised.

But the situation also calls into question the value of academic research in the field designed to produce new social applications (rather than investigate the impacts of extant social applications). It is humbling to realize that there is little to show for over 25 years of formal university and corporate lab research and development in the design and introduction of social media.

I ought to emphasize that the development of core technologies such as operating systems demand the knowledge, skills, and experience of outstanding researchers with excellent credentials; shooting from the hip and designing by the seat of the pants doesn't take you very far while trying to design operating systems, communication protocols, microprocessors and so on; the most influential operating systems: IBM's OS360, Bell Labs' Unix, Digital Research's CP/M, and Xerox's Alto and Star were all written by or under the supervision of Ph.Ds. The same restriction doesn't seem to apply to applications that are built on those solid foundations. The last 15 years have shown that the best innovations in application-oriented technologies happen when useful technology building tools are widely distributed among the general population, whether or not they are technically qualified. There is an incredible amount of ingenuity out there that goes far beyond what might obtain within the walls of formally designated research institutions. Society is greatly benefited by seeding it with an array of Tools for Innovation: give 'em the Tools to Create and then leave them alone.

UPDATE (July 2, 2009): Twittering considered harmful. Ranging from musculoskeletal problems caused by repetitive motion to the more sinister Going-About-One's-Life-While-Distracted-By-Twittering resulting in accidents and serious injury. That, and psychological issues relating to addiction and withdrawal from the physical world.


Anonymous said...

wow thanks for the props and all, but honestly i'm definitely not covered in technology and i definitely didn't explore any aspect of it until you came along. it's all you!

Murli said...

No, no, you! I insist! ;-)